The ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) Model is a comprehensive system for exercise programming that health coaches and exercise professionals can use to empower clients of all fitness and experience levels to achieve function, health, fitness and performance goals. This article focuses on that last piece—performance.

Of course, “improving performance” can mean very different things to different people. For a competitive runner, this might involve addressing any movement limitations that may be setting them up for a potential injury or limiting speed or endurance. For a soccer player, it may mean introducing high-intensity intervals and agility drills that directly translate to the short sprints and changes of direction needed to excel on the field. For a weekend warrior–type athlete, it may involve improving flexibility and strength in the lower back to help keep injury and fatigue at bay, and developing a plan to get them off the couch more often during the week.

Pete McCall, ACE Certified Personal Trainer and author of Smarter Recovery: A Practical Guide to Maximizing Training Results, likes to train clients using the premise that everyone is an athlete.

“Athletics is not confined to the field,” says McCall. “Help clients find their inner athlete and then explore ways to help them improve performance—whatever that means to them.”

Your job is to figure out what movement patterns each client needs to perform in their daily life, and then help the client improve the ability to perform those movements safely and efficiently. 

The Early Sessions

While the first sessions should include discussion of the client’s athletic goals, you also need to understand their current training program and performance level. Then, look for gaps in the program or areas of their performance that could use some improvement. For example, any limits in range of motion directly correspond to limits in performance, so you should assess stability, mobility and posture across all joints.

The key in the early going with any new client is to figure out where they stand and where they want to go. Clients with athletic pursuits are no different. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because a client has performance goals or calls themself an athlete, they must also have a well-rounded exercise routine and are equally fit in all areas. In fact, many athletes excel in their specific sport but are lacking in other elements of fitness. Consider a marathoner who almost never trains for strength, or a power lifter who neglects cardio training.   

Muscular Training

While you might assume that your more athletic clients have progressed beyond Functional Training (the first phase of muscular training in the ACE IFT Model), functional training exercises should be included in the workouts of all clients, even if they are pursuing performance goals (Figure 1). These types of exercises might be featured in the warm-up and/or cool-down of workouts, or you may identify an issue with postural stability or kinetic chain mobility that needs attention. In that case, you can incorporate exercises that improve muscular endurance, flexibility, core function, and static and dynamic balance.


Figure 1. ACE IFT Model Muscular Training Phases


It’s essential to focus on the requirements of the client’s chosen sport or activity. Can the client handle the movement patterns used during participation? This is where the five primary movement patterns described in the Movement Training phase—bend-and-lift movements, single-leg movements, pushing movements, pulling movements and rotational movements—come into play. If a client is unable to correctly perform a specific movement, range of motion and technique should be addressed before adding other training elements, such as power, strength or agility. Never add external resistance to an inefficient or incomplete movement pattern, as doing so increases the client’s risk of injury. Load/Speed Training should only be added after the client has demonstrated the ability to perform the five basic movement patterns with proper form.

McCall suggests putting new clients through a short body-weight workout during the initial session. “Don’t assume the client can perform basic movement patterns correctly,” he says. “Have the client perform each of the five primary movement patterns and then progress or regress them as needed, looking for imbalances and weakness.”

For example, if a client cannot perform a full body-weight squat, regress the movement to a hip hinge. If form is good during the squat, progress to a step-up to balance. Doing this for each movement pattern will give you a good sense of the client’s current abilities.

Agility training must be performed only after the client has demonstrated adequate mobility and stability to perform the movements of their chosen sport. You don’t want to make the mistake of building on bad form. Even after incorporating more difficult agility drills (if necessary), you should include Functional and Movement Training exercises during the warm-up and cool-down of an athlete’s workouts.

Poor postural stability increases the risk for a repetitive use injury. For example, for a golfer, limited hip mobility means that they cannot efficiently transfer weight and force from one leg to the other. This results in a situation where hip rotation is limited, so the individual twists more in the spine, which is forced to become more mobile to compensate for the lack of mobility in the hips.

Another great example can be seen in triathletes, who must excel in three different sports: cycling, running and swimming. Competitive cyclists tend to have tight hip flexors and weak hip extensors due to their position on the bike, which places them in a constant state of flexion. The tight hip flexors make running much tougher, as the push-off phase of the running gait relies on powerful hip extension. If this is the case, the athlete may rely on mobility in the lumbar spine to compensate. Triathletes must find a way to balance their performance among the three elements of their sport.

Knowing how to identify and address these types of imbalances is essential when working with clients seeking to improve their athletic performance.

Also, don’t forget to ask clients about any specific issues they may need to address. For example, because cyclists tend to have shortened, tight hip flexors, they also tend to have low-back pain. If you are able to improve overall function by stretching out these trouble spots, you can improve their strength and performance.

McCall recommends simply watching the client move. If you can’t watch the client compete in their sport, ask to see some key movements. For example, you might ask a tennis player if you can see their form on a backhand and forehand. If you see potential areas of improvement, say so, but be positive: “I see what might help you get where you want to go.”

Break down the movement you want to address. In this example, a tennis swing is a combination of a lunge and a rotation. Start by working on form during lunges and then add rotation with speed and resistance as appropriate.

This is an example of skill training, which McCall says should be higher intensity, with longer recovery or active rest periods. This is in contrast to conditioning sessions, which are not as intense, involve simpler movements and should be focused on keeping the client’s heart rate elevated.

Two sample workouts for improving athletic performance are provided at the end of this article.

Cardiorespiratory Training

When it comes to the Cardiorespiratory Training component of the ACE IFT Model, the thought process is similar to that used in Muscular Training. For example, you may have a client who expresses a goal of completing a half marathon within a certain timeframe. Before adding a speed component to their workout, however, you should ask yourself, “Does the client even have the endurance to finish the event?” In this case, endurance should be the priority over speed.

Consider endurance sports such as cycling, running, swimming and rowing. Athletes in these sports must be prepared for the distance or duration of their event before they can address the need for increasing their speed or sprinting ability. This requires exercise in the Fitness Training phase (Figure 2).


Figure 2. ACE IFT Model Cardiorespiratory Training Phases


Even after the client has the endurance required to compete in their sport or event, most of their training time should be spent performing moderate-intensity exercise. Periodized training programs should include time spent training in in all three cardiorespiratory phases. As a client’s total weekly training time increases, so will the percentage of training time spent in the Fitness and Performance Training phases, but the majority of training time (e.g., 70 to 80%) will still be spent at lower intensities. Keep in mind that the speed/hill training/interval work performed in the Performance Training phase is very taxing and requires adequate recovery time to be effective.

The warm-up and cool-down should include work below the first ventilatory threshold (VT1), or zone 1 training. It is essential that you educate athletic clients that even though they are seeking enhanced high-level performance, most of their training time should be spent exercising below their VT1. Many athletes mistakenly believe they have to “go hard” all the time to continue to improve. This is simply untrue, and potentially dangerous.

The ACE IFT Model utilizes a three-zone intensity model for Cardiorespiratory Training, which is appropriate for clients performing Fitness and Performance Training workouts (Figure 3).

Zone 1 training (below VT1): 70 to 80% of training time

Zone 2 training [from VT1 to just below the second ventilatory threshold (VT2)]: less than 10% of training time

Zone 3 training (at or above VT2): 5 to 10% of training time

Figure 3. Three-zone Intensity Model


As a client moves from Fitness to Performance Training (either by progressing in their workouts or as part of their periodized program), the primary difference when it comes to this breakdown is the inclusion of anaerobic power intervals at near-maximal effort in the Performance Training phase. These should be very short-duration bouts, with long recovery intervals, and should only be performed once or twice each week with at least 48 hours of recovery between workouts.

As with any client, you must consider the specific needs and goals of the individual client. The type of high-intensity interval performed by the client should be dictated by their chosen event or sport. For example, cyclists and cross-country skiers must train for hill climbs, while soccer players must train for short bursts of speed in the midst of extensive cardio work.

What if Your Client Is Reluctant to Do Early-stage Training?

Some athletic clients—particularly amateur athletes who have not had professional coaching—may be reluctant to perform Functional and Movement Training (in the Muscular Training phase) or Base and Fitness Training (in the Cardiorespiratory Training phase), as they think moderate-intensity exercise is not enough to keep them at the top of their game.

This is where you can use your coaching skills and the ACE Mover MethodTM to explore their reluctance. A key issue, and one that every athlete understands, is the need for injury prevention. When it comes to Cardiorespiratory Training, working too hard too often is a recipe for almost certain overuse injury.

In the Muscular Training component, McCall points out that alignment, stability and mobility are essential: “You can’t be explosive from a weak foundation.” Movement prep is a key element of any athlete’s training.

In the video below, ACE Scientific Education Manager Chris Gagliardi discusses how to use the ACE Mover Method to encourage clients who may be reluctant to do Functional and Movement Training because they are concerned that it won’t significantly enhance their performance.


Don’t Forget Your Coaching Skills

Performance-minded clients are more driven than your typical gym-goer, but this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to use your coaching skills to keep them on track. While you may have to push your usual clients to show up at the gym and work harder during sessions, the opposite may be true when working with athletes. It’s essential that they understand that “easy days” are absolutely necessary to allow for proper recovery. Athletes often struggle with this. Remind them that they can’t progress their interval training if they haven’t adequately recovered.

If a client begins showing signs of overtraining syndrome—increased resting heart rate, disturbed sleep, decreased hunger on multiple days—decrease the frequency or intensity of their high-intensity intervals and focus more on recovery.

Finally, never assume that high-performing athletes live balanced lives. In addition to potential challenges allowing for recovery between workouts, athletes have many of the same issues with sleep quality, stress management and nutrition as the rest of us.

The quality of some athletes’ nutritional intake may surprise you. Many athletes train so hard that their poor eating doesn’t show in their physiques. For this reason, while these individuals may be performing at a high level, they may not be performing at their best.

And that’s where your coaching skills come into play. Remind them that addressing imbalances, keeping injury at bay, eating well, and managing their stress levels and sleep habits are all part of training for improved performance.

Two Sample Workouts for Enhancing Performance

Sabrena Jo, PhD, Senior Director, Science & Research and ACE Education, created two series of exercises that are appropriate for athletic clients. The first five are Functional Training movements that can be included in the warm-up or cool-down or used as a means of active recovery. For each of the following exercises, have clients perform five repetitions, holding each for 10 seconds:

Have clients perform 10 repetitions of each of the exercises in the following routine, progressing only when they have mastered the primary exercises. The primary exercises listed here are part of Movement Training, while the progressions can be used during Load/Speed Training.


Expand Your Knowledge

Exercise Programming Toolkit – Course Bundle

The ACE Integrated Fitness Training® Model Exercise Programming Toolkit course bundle explores the different components of the ACE IFT® Model, including the ACE Mover MethodTM, to help you develop safe and effective exercise plans. By gaining an understanding of how to move through the phases of the ACE IFT Model, you will be able to effectively educate clients and gain their trust, keeping them safe as they move toward their goals.

Essential Toolkit for Exercise Professionals – Course Bundle

The Essential Toolkit for Exercise Professionals course bundle, you will discover key skills to help your clients achieve their fitness goals. From behavior-change strategies, nutrition coaching, strength training and more, you will build the foundation for success as an exercise professional.

Strategies for Enhancing Program Design – Course Bundle

When designing an exercise program for clients, there are many ways to create safe and effective training plans. The Strategies for Enhancing Program Design – Course Bundle will elevate your exercise programs by showing you how to integrate agility training, HIIT and the ACE Integrated Fitness (ACE IFT) Model.